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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Ratanakiri hilltribes lose land grab court case

Ratanakiri hilltribes lose land grab court case

A March 23 Ratanakiri court ruling may cause the eviction of more than 900 indigenous

minority people from their ancestral lands.

On March 23, the Ratanakiri Provincial Court ruled against a civil complaint brought

by ethnic Jarai and Tampuen people in three villages in Bokeo district. Lawyers from

Legal Aid of Cambodia (LAC), who represented the three villages, charged that the

tribal people had been tricked into giving up 1,200 hectares of their land to a representative

of Gen Nuon Phea.

LAC Lawyer Ea Sopheap argued that district officials and intermediaries working for

Gen Nuon Phea pressured the villagers to thumbprint documents that, without their

knowledge, provided legal land titles to the villages. Those titles were then transferred

to Nuon Phea.

District officials acting as middle-men for the general admitted receiving $35,000

from Nuon Phea's representative, money that the villagers testified they never saw.

In addition, 70,000 riel (about $US18) was allocated as gifts to each village, to

be split between village chiefs, deputy chiefs and chiefs of the local militia.

Most of the villagers, however, never received anything more than a "gift"

of two kilos of salt.

In the final verdict, which took less than 10 minutes to prepare after the day-long

proceedings, Judge Nong Sok stated that by thumb-printing sales and land title documents

and accepting gifts, the villagers had agreed to sell their land. While indigenous

interpreters were available during the proceedings, the verdict was delivered only

in Khmer.

"The trial sets a bad precedent for indigenous land rights," said Sidney

Jones from Human Rights Watch, one of several international organizations that sent

observers to the trial. "It reinforces the idea that powerful individuals can

use fraud and intimidation to take away people's land."

The court ruling calls for the villagers - who eke out a subsistence livelihood by

swidden farming - to pay a proportional tax of one percent on the 1,200 hectares,

at a rate of 200,000 riels (or US $50) per hectare, for a total of approximately

US$615. At the same time, in an odd twist, Gen. Nuon Phea is required to pay 14 million

riel ($3,500) in compensation to the villagers.

"The legal argument by the court was that land is cheap in Ratanakiri,"

said Jeremy Ironside, a development worker in Ratanakiri who attended the trial.

"Where else could you buy land for $50 or less a hectare? The implication is

that indigenous people don't need to receive much for their land - a bag of salt

is sufficient to constitute payment. This decision can only lead to future land grabbing

by sending the message that it is perfectly acceptable to lie and cheat indigenous

people from their land."

A key issue addressed by lawyer Ea Sopheap was the fraudulent nature of the sales

agreement produced by local district officials, which transferred forged land titles

that had been thumb-printed and issued in villagers' names to Nuon Phea.

Through the testimony of several Tampuen children, LAC showed that titles were drawn

up in the names of underage minors. A number of villagers testified that they thumb-printed

the documents many times, in the names of other people. District officials admitted

during the trial that land titles had even been issued in their own names, despite

the fact that they have never been residents of any of the three villages.

The villagers, meanwhile, had been told they were thumb-printing documents that would

bring "development" to their villages.

LAC called for the fraudulent sales agreement to be voided, charging that the documents

unwittingly thumb-printed by the villagers were tampered with before being delivered

to Nuon Phea's representative. Ea Sopheap argued that the sales agreement was also

invalid because it did not specify the boundaries or amount of land to be sold, even

the buyer's name.

"The documents we thumb-printed were done in a fraudulent way. Some people thumb-printed,

some didn't, others thumb-printed many times for others," complained Chet Tampuen

villager Kwa Thin. "They even called the young children to thumbprint - the

whole process wasn't conducted in a proper way."

Thin and 50 other villagers - 14 of whom testified - insisted that they never intended

to sell their land and that it be returned.

"When we supposedly sold our land, why did we never see any money?" asked

Roman To from Chet village. "Now they charge that we minorities sold our land.

We are not accustomed to selling our land since the time of our ancestors. Land is

something we depend on for our livelihood."

Trial observers noted that the court was not able to establish a legal basis for

the verdict, particularly since the issue of the fraudulent documents was not addressed.

In addition, observers noted that the court did not address the fact that no one

admitted they knew where the $35,000 paid by Nuon Phea representative Nhean Sary

to the district officials went.

"The whole deceit of what local district officials did was never even questioned

or mentioned," said Ironside. "This was sophisticated fraud - but the court

appeared to think that none of that was a problem. Unfortunately this can only encourage

other people with power to come up here and do deceitful deals, leaving more and

more land in the hands of just a few people."

Ratanakiri Governor Kham Khoeun expressed concern about the ruling and said he would

fully support a judicial appeal.

"We are very concerned about private interests who use these kinds of methods

to grab my people's land," Khoeun said. "I still support my poor people...

their livelihoods depend on land and without land they can't survive."

Adhoc, which has a provincial office in Ratanakiri, met with Governor Kham Khoeun

on March 29 to discuss the issue of indigenous land rights, as well as witness protection

for the Bokeo case. "

"We are quite concerned about the security of the villagers who showed their

face in court," said Y Kosal Vathanak, head of Adhoc's monitoring unit.

The villagers are determined to file an appeal, as well as travel to Phnom Penh to

inform the King and other officials about the case.

"If we don't get the land back we will continue to sue the court again and again,"

said Ting Teng, a Jarai from Chrong village. "We are poor. If they let us live,

we live. If we don't get the land back we die."

Adhoc and other NGOs plan to monitor the appeals process.

"Developers need to know that they have to have honest negotiations with affected

communities - and follow the law - in order to acquire land in the future,"

said Y Kosal Vathanak.

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